Christmas Songnerd: Fairytale of New York
Here we are again, with another round! If you’ve not been keeping up, Christmas Songnerd is my attempt at some little case studies on some of the ‘Christmas classics’ currently assaulting your ears as you forge a path through the hordes of your local shopping centre. You may hate all Christmas music, or you may love it – personally I’ve never minded it much – but pop singles are like miniature time capsules, so examining their gender politics and the culture they were produced in is… you know. Interesting.
Anyway, today I’ve hauled our Rhian in to talk about Fairytale of New York, the Pogues’ and Kirsty MacColl’s Christmas anthem. The following is our email discussion about the song, the 1980s, folk music, and class politics.
Grab a whiskey.
Happy Christmas Your Arse
Rhian: I think one reason the song is so popular is because it seems like an oddity – it’s highly secular, the only mention of anything to do with Christmas is the setting, and it dissects romantic sentimentalism rather than replicating it – the lyric is of a part with the rest of the Pogues’ tragicomic gutter-poetry dealing with addiction, nihilism, prostitution, police corruption and brutality. Besides making it stand out among other seasonal songs, this also makes it the choice of the Christmas refusenik. In another way, of course, its depiction of dysfunctional relationships, exhaustion, frustration, frayed tempers and failed dreams make it the perfect song for Christmas as emotional pressure-valve.
Miranda: Yeah, it manages a keen balancing act of romantic and antiromantic, if you will – it sways between “I’ve built my dreams around you” and “you’re an old slut on junk” so deftly that I can never decide whether its final notes leave me depressed or hopeful. It’s got that whole “we’re ruined, irrevocably, and yet I love you” vibe, without ever straying into ‘stand by your man’ territory.
Queen of New York City
Rhian: Kirsty’s character makes a good subversive girl-next-door, overcoming taboos around female profanity, the place of women in a relationship, and the female as uncritically supportive of and subservient to the male. (After punk, and apart from Madonna maybe, which other mainstream late-80s female singers – especially folk/pop – compare with her vocal here for casual, combative profanity that matches, if not outdoes, her partner?)
I remember watching a ‘Making of…’ documentary on this song in which one of the Pogues was describing Kirsty’s efforts to overcome her stagefright when doing the song on tour with them, and recalled that on the first night they performed it, the crowd joined in with her, rather than Shane, on the ‘I could’ve been someone’ / ‘Well, so could anyone’ rejoinder. Which made me think about her part as the one with which listeners identify, the long-suffering steadfast partner/friend who finally talks back, providing much-needed perspective, however depressing that is, and the relief and catharsis that doing so brings. It’s like she speaks for all the women slaving over Xmas dinner for ungrateful kids and husbands.
Miranda: Although Shane’s character asserts a kind of ownership of Kirsty’s dreams (he’s the one who takes, builds, attempts to reassure her that she sits at the centre of the dream it sounds like he screwed up), he starts the song imprisoned in the “drunk tank” – implying she’s a dream, this woman, a figure from times past. So maybe where she is now – free, perhaps, who knows? – is left open. And I think that’s another thing that underpins the bittersweet, shady-grey spirit of this song. It’s never clear whose story this is, and there’s a real tension between her narrations and his, which draw the song back to a romantic, but broken, conclusion even as her “I pray god it’s our last” is still sort of echoing. Maybe it was, or maybe it wasn’t.
Rhian: That’s one of my favourite aspects of the song – what did happen to this couple, in the end? Does she come and pick him up from the drunk tank and bail him out after the song’s close, or has she OD’d years previously, or is she happily settled in her own life now? And yes, it nicely dodges the expected stand-by-your-man stuff. Actually it’s very even-handed in the way they both berate each other, sounding equally foul-mouthed and irritable, presumably he’s got his drinking and she’s got her junk so they’re both in the grip of addiction – again it subverts the idea of the meek and submissive female innocent under the grubby domineering male thumb.
Miranda: I also like the way it takes the folk figure of the lonely drunkard singing about his old flame and brings her directly into the song to talk back.
Rhian: Yes, totally – she’s one of the old ballads’ idealised nebulous foils, who suddenly clears her throat and interrupts the narrative with her side of the story – making both of them more well-rounded characters by doing so.
Cheap, Lousy and… Haggard?
For the Top of the Pops appearance, the BBC insisted that MacColl’s singing of “arse” be replaced with the less offensive “ass”, although as she mimed the word MacColl slapped the relevant part of her body to make it clear what was meant… On December 18, 2007, BBC Radio 1 put a ban on the words “faggot” and “slut” from “Fairytale of New York” to “avoid offence”.
Rhian: Re: ‘faggot’, which admittedly I always found slightly incongruous in context, Wikipedia also sez: In his Christmas podcast, musical comedian Mitch Benn commented that “faggot” was Irish and Liverpudlian slang for a lazy person, and was unrelated to the derogatory term for homosexuals.) Also, the one word that never seems to get dubbed out is ‘punk’, despite its historical application to female prostitutes, rent-boys and prison ‘bitches’…
Miranda:And I think it’s not impossible they weren’t aware of that given that the folk canon – which the MacColl family were well into – does contain dances several hundred years old with titles like “the punk’s delight”.
Rhian: The use of ‘punk’ and ‘faggot’ – while the latter may not be used in its modern, derogatory sense, I think it undeniably carries those connotations – makes for, in terms of stereotyping, an odd kind of feminisation (that may be the wrong word, it’s been a long week) of the male protagonist. Shane Macgowan has referenced male prostitution as part of a generally chaotic/hustling lifestyle in songs like ‘The Old Main Drag’; I wonder if a similar thing is being implied here.
Miranda: I’d never considered that – but it’s Kirsty who says “punk”, isn’t it. I think it has a more general usage which is a bit like “bum”, but I like the choice of word because it doesn’t immediately imply that the only one who might have engaged in that lifestyle is automatically the woman, which a first listening of “old slut on junk” connotates.
Cars Big As Bars
Rhian: And, to be wanky, in terms of socio-political context: both MacColl and the Pogues were outspokenly left-wing. In 1987 Thatcher had just been reelected, the mass civil unrest, strikes and riots of the early 1980s had simmered down despite increasing wealth disparity and ostentatious display by those at the top of the pile, both here and in the US under Reagan. In the UK this is the era of Enfield as Loadsamoney, in New York of American Psycho and Wall Street (the latter film released the same year as this song). MacColl’s opening lines (‘They got cars big as bars, they got rivers of gold / But the wind blows right through you…’) concisely and incisively sums up the period’s glaring inconsistencies, setting the scene without allowing it to colour the rest of the song – except inasmuch as the protagonists seem likely to be nearer the bottom of the heap than the top, relying on each other with little material resources to fall back on.
You Promised Me Broadway
Miranda: So what about all these covers? Do any of them cut the mustard, or do anything that makes them worth a listen? The Ronan Keating/Maire Brennan one, I just … WHYYYY. Bowdlerised out of all hell.
Rhian: It’s been covered into cliche, and yet I can’t think of any that did anything memorable with it, or did anything other than diminish the power and energy of the original, especially with the bowing to bowdlerisation in a version like the Ronan one. It’s hard to see how it could be covered in a way that did anything other than replicate it.
Miranda: That whole Ronan recording is like some terrible Irish tourist board pantomime. The only thing worse would be Michael Flatley doing an interpretive dance version. She leaves “arse” in, and I thought it’d be like hearing the queen fart or something, but somehow it’s disappointing. She sounds like she’s still singing about the wild green mystical castle of Ireland and wee-diddly-dee in that totally Clannady way all the same.
Rhian:The number and variety of covers (including Florence Welch and Billy Bragg, wtf?) says something for the original’s quality and ‘classic’ status, but yeah, little else I can get out of it other than varying degrees of squeamishness over the language. It’s become a very safe standard though repeated covering, I think, especially with the lyrical sting drawn. I’ve just run across Dustin Kensrue’s version, which is entirely sung from the perspective of Macgowan’s character, with rewritten second and third verses, and in my opinion loses a lot for it:
Miranda:Gosh, it does, doesn’t it? Actually, this IS, this BECOMES the archetypal Lonely Drunk Folk Song I was talking about, doesn’t it? If you write Kirsty out like that, and reduce her lines to quotes (“You said so could anyone”) … she goes back in her box, really, doesn’t she. Turns back into a ghost woman, a memory of Archetypal Irish Drunk Regretful Bloke’s past. She becomes the stereotype again.That’s really interesting, because it highlights how important she is in terms of the song’s power, though. So Dustin is to be thanked for that, at least.
So, next time you hear this in the shopping centre, I don’t know, think about some of that stuff, instead of “oh God, this is overplayed”. And don’t overdo it. No BadRep reader needs to end up in the drunk tank this week, okay? Be good.